Lichens May Help Fight Deadly Chronic Wasting Disease in Wildlife

Certain lichens can break down the infectious proteins responsible for chronic wasting disease (CWD), a troubling neurological disease fatal to wild deer and elk and spreading throughout the United States and Canada, according to U.S. Geological Survey research published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Like other "prion" diseases, CWD is caused by unusual, infectious proteins called prions. One of the best-known of these diseases is "mad cow" disease, a cattle disease that has infected humans. However, there is no evidence that CWD has infected humans. Disease-causing prions, responsible for some incurable neurological diseases of people and other diseases in animals, are notoriously difficult to decontaminate or kill. Prions are not killed by most detergents, cooking, freezing or by autoclaving, a method used to sterilize medical instruments.

"When prions are released into the environment by infected sheep or deer, they can stay infectious for many years, even decades," said Christopher Johnson, a scientist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and the lead author of the study. "To help limit the spread of these diseases in animals, we need to be able to remove prions from the environment."

The researchers found that lichens have great potential for safely reducing the number of prions because some lichen species contain a protease enzyme (a naturally produced chemical) capable of significantly breaking down prions in the lab.

"This work is exciting because there are so few agents that degrade prions and even fewer that could be used in the environment without causing harm," said Jim Bennett, a USGS lichenologist and a co-author of the study.

CWD and scrapie in sheep are different than other prion diseases because they can easily spread in sheep or deer by direct animal-to-animal contact or through contact with contaminated inanimate objects like soil. Chronic wasting disease was first diagnosed in the 1960s and has since been detected in 19 states and two Canadian provinces. CWD has been detected in wild elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and moose in North America.

Lichens, said Johnson, produce unique and unusual organic compounds that aid their survival and can have antibiotic, antiviral and other chemotherapeutic activities. In fact, pharmaceutical companies have been examining the medicinal properties of lichens more closely in recent years.

Lichens, which are often mistaken for moss, are unusual, plant-like organisms that are actually a symbioses of fungi, algae and bacteria living together. They usually live on soil, bark, leaves and wood and can live in barren and unwelcoming environments, including the Arctic and in deserts.

Future work will examine the effect of lichens on prions in the environment and determine if lichen consumption can protect animals from acquiring prion diseases.

Download Center

  • Monitoring and Reporting on Air Emissions for Regulators and the Real World

    When it comes to managing compliance and regulatory issues surrounding air emissions, there are no easy jobs. With interviews from practitioners from American Electric Power, Red Cedar Gathering, Trinity Consultants, and Cority, this eBook provides practical advice to advance your air emissions monitoring and reporting programs.

  • What Every EHS Professional Should Know About ESG

    Join experts from Arcadis and Cority on April 27th to learn the most common ESG reporting frameworks and how technology can help you improve reporting efficiency, identify areas for improvement, and create defensible audit trails.

  • Green Quadrant EHS Software 2021

    Read the new report by independent analyst firm, Verdantix, to get an unbiased comparison of the 22 most prominent EHS software vendors in the industry.

  • RFP Template for Waste Management Software

    Learn the essential questions to ask when evaluating waste management software solutions with this free, ready-to-use RFP template

  • 5 Keys to Best-in-Class Chemical Management

    Running a safe chemical program is challenging and complex: from knowing what's on-site to proper handling and disposal - all while navigating regulatory changes. Learn the best ways to mitigate chemical risk, get the most value out of your data, and gain buy-in for a chemical management solution.

Featured Webinar